Doctors’ use of Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp is the focus of 28 GMC investigations

Authors: Abi Rimmer 

Publication date:  01 Sep 2017


The General Medical Council closed 28 investigations related to doctors’ use of Facebook, Twitter, or WhatsApp between 1 January 2015 and 30 June 2017, figures obtained by The BMJ have shown.

The GMC provided the data in response to a freedom of information request from The BMJ.

In three cases, doctors received a warning from the GMC. A warning indicates to the doctor that a certain conduct, practice, or behaviour is a departure from the standards expected of the medical profession and should not be repeated.

A further three cases were referred to the doctor's employer, and two doctors had their registration suspended as the result of an investigation. A suspension is issued when a doctor’s misconduct is so serious “that action must be taken to protect members of the public and maintain public confidence in the profession.”[1]

In one case the doctor was issued with an undertaking, and in another the doctor was issued with a condition on their registration. Undertakings are restrictions on a doctor’s practice that are agreed between the doctor and the GMC. They could, for example, stop the doctor from carrying out a particular procedure or commit the doctor to undergo medical supervision or retraining. Similar to undertakings, conditions restrict a doctor’s practice or require them to do something. They are imposed, rather than agreed upon, for up to three years.[1]

Fourteen cases were closed without any further action being taken, and a further four were closed with advice being issued to the doctor.

The GMC said that in over half of the cases, the complaint that sparked the investigation was made by someone acting in a public capacity; that is, someone working for an employer or a public body. In seven cases the investigation was triggered by a complaint from a patient or member of the public. Six complaints were made by “other,” which could be a non-health body or a doctor self referring.

The GMC could not say how many complaints were closed at the triage stage and not investigated further because the nature of complaints is not recorded at that stage.

In total, 20 of the investigations were directly related to a doctor’s use of Facebook (10 in 2015, eight in 2016, and two in 2017 up to 30 June). Six were related to a doctor’s use of Twitter (three in 2015, two in 2016, and one in 2017), and three were directly related to activity by a doctor on WhatsApp, with one investigation being conducted each year. In one case, both Facebook and Twitter use featured as part of the investigation. Facebook currently has two billion monthly users worldwide, while WhatsApp has 1.2 billion and Twitter has 328 million.[2]

The BMJ also asked the GMC if there were any investigations related to doctors using Snapchat, but the regulator said that none had occurred.

References

  1. Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service, General Medical Council. Sanctions guidance. [Link]
  2. Titcomb A. Facebook closes in on two billion users. Telegraph 2017 April 30. [Link]

Abi Rimmer The BMJ

 arimmer@bmj.com

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